COURTSIDE - by Mark Teich
The most basic goal of conditioning is fitness. Though
the term has been loosely used, fitness is the foundation
on which all successful athletic performance is built.
To become fit, an athlete must first develop a strong,
healthy body and then fine-tune the specific physical
requirements-great endurance, say, for a distance runner.
The point is not to turn a parakeet into a condor but
to develop the abilities an athlete already has.
Dr. Stewart Staley, who in 1941 co-founded the renowned
Physical Fitness Research Laboratory at the University
of Illinois in Springfield, says the concept of physical
fitness was practically nonexistent until the 1930s.
There were only two or three noteworthy training institutions
in the country, and conditioning was not part of the
public consciousness -it was mostly limited to calisthenics
and gymnastics classes taught in YMCAs and public schools.
Today, however, fitness has a broader connotation.
With sports institutions and training programs emerging
throughout the country, with every form of media proclaiming
the value of exercise , we are in the middle of a fitness
boom. According to Dr. Kenneth Cooper, often considered
the father of the fitness revolution, the number of
runners in the U.S. has grown from 100,000 to 34,000,000
since he published his first book, Aerobics , in 1968.
Furthermore, says Cooper, 59 percent of all Americans
18 years of age and older now devote time to some form
of regular exercise.
Though Cooper and his medical contemporaries will not
come right out and claim that firness prolongs life--they
do say it improves quality of life--the evidence seems
strong. Cooper says that there has been a 28 percent
decrease in strokes and heart disease since 1968, and
that the average life span has increased from 70 to
75 years over that same period. Ostensibly, exercise
has played an Important part in increasing longevity
since it directly reduces many risk factors contributing
to injury, disease and death. As California exercise
physiologist Michael Boschetti points out, strength
training exercises such as weight lifting can slow the
aging of the bones. "The bones are living tissue.
When you put weight on tissues and systematically overload
them, you cause them to produce more blood and calcium.
The added calcium can keep the bones from becoming brittle,
preventing problems with backaches and osteoporosis.
Moreover, most doctors and physiologists agree that
endurance (aerobic) activities such as running or swimming
can lead to a healthier, more efficient cardiovascular
system. I By forcing the heart to pump at a faster rate,
exercise increases the blood flow to the extremities
and back, ultimately opening up the blood vessels and
making them more elastic. The arteries are thus kept
free of clogging debris that can lead to a heart attack
or stroke. At the same time, exercise stimulates development
of new blood vessels that improve circulation. (It was
these corollary vessels that probably saved Arthur Ashe
after his heart attack in 1979.) This enhanced blood
flow carries greater quantities of nourishing oxygen
to the lungs and other parts of the body.
Most important, the heart is strengthened. Like most
muscles, the heart is slowly conditioned by exercise
to handle a larger workload without being exhausted
or injured. As the heart muscle develops it can I produce
greater blood volume with each stroke, doing less work
to produce the same result. Thus, following exercise,
the pulse rate will return to a safe, standing level
far more quickly. It is during the recovery period,
Cooper points out, when a weak heart may be most likely
to succumb to an attack. Endurance exercise also burns
up fat to produce energy. This not only controls weight
and blood pressure but reduces the burden on the heart.
In the process, it lowers the level of dangerous triglycerides
and low-density lipoproteins ("bad" cholesterol
in the blood), while raising the concentration of high-
density lipoproteins ("good" cholesterol,
which counteracts the "bad" cholesterol).
All of this lowers the risk of heart attacks.
Certainly, modern medical treatments and insights about
nutrition, drinking and smoking have increased the average
life span. The emphasis on exercise has also played
a central role in keeping people vigorous in later life.
Even many of the world's renowned athletes are learning
that proper conditioning can extend their active years.
It would seem that professional athletes, of all people,
should have made these discoveries about fitness long
ago, but many clung to the notion that they could work
themselves into playing shape during the regular season.
Baseball is full of stories about stars who ate themselves
across the country via the banquet circuit during the
winter. Never looking at a baseball for four or five
months, they showed up for spring training overweight
and had to pound away at their bodies to get in shape.
Sometimes most of the season passed before they regained
their form. These yearly shocks to their systems eventually
wore down their resilience, ending their careers prematurely.
Fitness pioneer Dudley Sergeant, who directed the School
of Physical Training in Cambridge, Massachusetts for
35 years, used to say that half the struggle for physical
training has been won when a student can be induced
to take an interest in his own body conditioning. The
other half of the battle is figuring out how to proceed
Training must be strenuous but not abusive. Running
ten miles on the first day of a conditioning program
is inadvisable and dangerous. On the other hand, just
sitting down on an exercise bicycle and reading a newspaper
won't make anyone an athlete. A U.S. I Department of
Health and Human Services study recently showed that
self-delusion about fitness is rampant. Eighty percent
of those polled said they exercised regularly--0nly
one-third of them, however, actually exercised enough
to make real fitness gains.
The problem, explains renowned sports chiropractor
Leroy Perry, director of the International Sportsmedicine
Institute in Los Angeles, is that most athletes don't
understand their own bodies, and consequently know little
about just what exercises will give them the best benefits.
An unfortunate example is Jim Fixx, the well-known running
authority, who died on a run. Fixx, despite three I
separate heart attacks and his voluminous knowledge
of exercise physiology, kept running hundreds of miles
year after year, ignoring his family's history of heart
fatalities. Fixx refused to take a cardiac stress I
test or to slacken his running program. One of his arteries
was 85 percent blocked, but Fixx believed that if he
could run all those marathons he must be healthy. One
day following a run he had a fourth heart attack and
The Point is not that running long distances is dangerous,
but that Fixx should have found out if it was good for
him in his condition. The first step for anyone undertaking
a serious exercise program, especially someone over
35 years old, should be a complete physical checkup,
including a treadmill stress test. The more thorough
the examination, the better the individual will understand
his strengths, weaknesses and needs. One can then set
up a safe, effective program. Depending on the particular
fitness goals and competitive desires, the individual
may want to focus mainly on developing power, stamina
or agility. Whatever the emphasis, training should be
broken into three broad areas: strength training (anaerobic
conditioning), endurance training (aerobic conditioning)
and flexibility training (stretching the muscles).
If sports scientists have learned anything in recent
years, it is how vital balanced fitness is in athletics.
No matter what an athlete's talents, they will be diminished
by flaws in his conditioning program. Witness the old
Australian champion Ron Clarke, who held world records
in the 5,000 and 10,000 meter runs, despite having no
finishing speed whatsoever. Clarke lost a lot of races
in the final 200 yards. If he'd developed strength in
his thighs and gluteus and upper body, he might have
improved his sprinting power enough to hold off many
rivals who kicked by him. And if John McEnroe worried
more about endurance training, he might not have squandered
a two-set lead to Ivan Lendl in the 1984 French Op final.
Instead the cornerstones of 1 game--his craftiness,
quickness at finesse--melted into so much vichyssoise
soup when he ran out 0 steam under the Parisian sun.
Once an athlete is committed to all-around conditioning,
he or she faced with developing a suitable program.
This can be a complex proposition since there is no
or piece of equipment that can' t develop strength,
endurance and f flexibility simultaneously. Everyone
is aware of the confusing variety of fitness strategies
that are currently on the market. There are clubs and
spas, gewgaws and machines, videotapes and records,
experts and more experts. Each product or technique
is heralded as the best, the most innovative, the most
all- encompassing. The barrage of possibilities can
be discouraging. There is no single path to fitness.
With some guidance, in fact, a person can bypass the
space-age toys and gimmicks, and custom design his own
program using nothing more than his body. A combination
of simple calisthenics such as jumping jacks, push-ups,
sit-ups, pull-ups, running in places and stretches can
keep anyone in shape. The rest is gravy. But gravy shouldn't
underestimated-it makes a lot of things more palatable.
Dave Ellis, national sales manager for Amerec, which
manufactures a respected line of rowing machines and
stationary bicycles, agrees: "We give people motivation.
The main motivation comes not from possessing something
shiny and new, but from the modern delight in quantification.
The high-tech era in fitness has been spawned mostly
by time and cost-effectiveness. We demand shortcuts
that will make them the most awesome specimens in the
least amount of time. Thus, the recent history of fitness
has been a quest to make conditioning more precisely
It was Dr. Cooper who first tapped into this sensibility
in 1968 when he brandished the term aerobics. Until
then the word was mostly relegated to microbiology,
as in "aerobic bacteria. " But the book Aerobics
delivered it to the common man, bringing science to
the world of fitness.
Cooper's Aerobics Point System, complete with easy
tables based on age and sex, provided a convenient,
accessible method of measuring the value of exercise
and of modifying it ! to get the greatest benefits.
For the first time an individual could take a run or
swim of a certain length then figure out just what he
had achieved for his body when he got home. Each workout
earned a certain number of aerobic points, arid at the
end of the week, if enough points
had been amassed, the athlete knew he'd made inroads
The center of this new aerobic universe was the cardiovascular
system. For Cooper, fitness meant an efficient heart,
ample veins and a strong set of lungs. The key to all
of them was oxygen flow. By definition, aerobic means
only in the presence of oxygen; aerobic exercise is
that which requires a sustained oxygen supply. A weight
lifter can bench press 1000 pounds and a sprinter can
run a 40-yard dash without taking a breath, so these
are essentially anaerobic
exercises, requiring no significant amount of oxygen.
But an endurance athlete must constantly consume great
amounts of air.
Exercise demanding this steady, .heightened intake and
expulsion of oxygen formed the basis of Cooper's program,
since it was the only exercise that could systematically
condition the heart and lungs.
According to the American " College of Sports
Medicine, the target zone for aerobic exercise is generally
considered to be 60 to 90 percent of the maximum heart
rate. Maximum heart rate, which varies from person to
person, can be determined by a cardiac stress test.
Or it can be roughly estimated by subtracting the individual's
age from 220. Thus, the target Zone for a 40- year-old
would be 60 to 90 percent of 180, or about 108 to 162
beats per minute. His pulse should rise to these levels
after a few minutes of exercise and should stay toward
the lower end of his target zone, but as conditioning
improves, he can safely intensify the exercise. The
fItter the individual becomes, though, the harder he
will have to work to achieve a higher rate, since the
heart will be beating more and more efficiently.